Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has published a list of 69 rabbinical courts it trusts on Jewish conversions. Advocates for religious reform called it a mixed bag: While happy to see transparency, they said the list raises more questions than it answers.
The Chief Rabbinate governs all Jewish conversions, marriages, divorces and burials in Israel. If it does not recognize a conversion, that person cannot get legally married or divorced in Israel, or buried in a Jewish cemetery. It’s never recognized Reform and Conservative conversions, and in recent years has rejected some American Orthodox rabbis, such as the liberal Rabbi Avi Weiss.
This is the first time the Chief Rabbinate has released a list of Diaspora rabbis whose authority it accepts on conversion. They are all Orthodox. The list, published Nov. 21 on the Chief Rabbinate’s website, includes dozens of rabbinical courts throughout the world, half in the United States. The American courts are in major cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.
“We have something to work with now,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of Itim, an Israeli organization that advocates for greater transparency in the Chief Rabbinate through freedom-of-information requests and legal proceedings.
The Chief Rabbinate also established criteria for which rabbinical courts meet its standards, according a spokesman. The criteria, first published as a draft earlier this year, mandate that the courts operate year-round, demonstrate fealty to Orthodox Jewish law and tradition, and be endorsed by a major Orthodox organization. Non-Orthodox courts will not make the cut, along with some liberal Orthodox courts and those that meet on an ad hoc basis to serve smaller communities.
“It was published now because the criteria were approved now and this was part of that issue,” the spokesman said. “The list includes those that were approved.”
He left room for other bodies to qualify: “Of course, if a rabbinical court does not appear, that does not mean that it’s not accepted. That is why we set criteria.”
Many Israelis have protested the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish religious life in Israel. Surveys show that large majorities of Jewish Israelis want to institute civil marriage in Israel and liberalize conversion policy, along with other reforms. American Jewish leaders have also called for Israel to recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis and ceremonies, but the issue does not resonate as much among rank-and-file US Jews.
(The new list is unrelated to the so-called “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis released last year. That list was of rabbis whom the Chief Rabbinate did not trust to confirm that people who were born Jewish. This list concerns rabbis trusted to perform conversions.)
“One step forward and two steps back,” Shmuel Shattach of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a group that supports more freedom of religious choice in Israel, said in a statement.
“The fact that the current list does not include important rabbis and communities abroad is a source of profound concern,” he said. “We expect and hope to see a completion of the process of recognizing rabbis abroad, which can lead to the mending and healing of the great crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.”